By Freddy Cuevas
The Associated Press
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras - A powerful earthquake toppled dozens of homes in Honduras and Belize early Thursday, killing at least six people and injuring 40 as terrified residents spilled from their homes across much of Central America.
The magnitude-7.1 quake struck at 2:24 a.m. (4:24 a.m. EDT; 0824 GMT) off the Caribbean coast of Honduras, 80 miles (130 kilometers) northeast of the beach town of La Ceiba, according to the U.S. Geological Survey in Golden, Colorado.
"People were running for the door," Alfredo Cedeno said from the reception desk at the Gran Hotel Paris in La Ceiba. "You could really feel it and you could see it - the water came out of the pool."
Reynaldo Funez, 15, was buried in his house in Pineda de la Lima, 120 miles (200 kilometers) north of the capital, Tegucigalpa, and 6-year-old Deily Yazmin Santos was killed when her house collapsed in the beach town of Morazan, national fire commander Col. Carlos Cordero said.
Ana Maria Rivera, spokeswoman for Honduras' Permanent Emergency Commission, said Jose Vicente Maradiaga died of a heart attack during the earthquake in the seaside town of Tela, and a 3-year-old boy was crushed when his roof collapsed in Mapulaca near the Salvadoran border. She didn't have Maradiaga's age or the boy's name.
"It was an earthquake of great proportions," she said.
Two other people were killed in home collapses, according to the commission's chief, Marcos Burgos, who didn't have details. At least 40 people were injured, most along the Caribbean coast.
The earthquake destroyed at least 57 homes and damaged another 65, the commission said. It said 14 schools were damaged, as were two Roman Catholic churches and three bridges.
Democracy Bridge, which spans the country's largest river, the Ulua, collapsed in the town of El Progreso, Cordero said. The bridge is one of two connecting the northern city of San Pedro Sula, Honduras' second-largest, with the rest of the country. The second bridge was deemed safe.
"The central part of the bridge fell into the river," Cordero said.
Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, who called the quake a "tragedy," said damages were estimated at about $37 million.
San Pedro Sula is scheduled to host a summit of foreign ministers of the Organization of American States next week. OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza said in Washington the meeting would go on as planned.
In Belize, about five homes collapsed and an Associated Press reporter saw at least 25 others with severe damage. Many of the wooden shacks on stilts sunk several feet into ground.
In Monkey River, parts of the ground opened up and left gaping holes up to four feet (over a meter) deep. Residents heard dogs howling seconds before the quake hit.
"I heard this rumbling and I thought the rain is coming, but then I looked up at the sky and I saw all of the stars and I knew something was not right. Then the shaking started. It was pretty scary," said Malfry Garbutt, who grabbed her three small children and ran.
Before the quake, her wooden house on stilts was eight feet above the ground. After the quake, it was only three feet.
A water tower toppled in the town of Independence and electricity was out all the way to the Mexican border, local officials said.
"I urge you not to panic, but to remain calm," National Emergency Minister Melvin Hulse said on the radio.
Honduran Education Minister Marlon Breve closed schools along the coast and on the Bay Islands, and officials reported electricity, telephones and Internet connections were cut across a large part of the country. A local official with Internet provider Amnet said a fiber optic cable was cut, affecting service throughout Honduras and in other parts of Central America.
Closest to the epicenter were the idyllic islands of Roatan and Utila, where officials and hotel employees said there were no injuries or major damage. A tsunami watch was canceled for Honduras, Belize and Guatemala when no unusual waves appeared.
Raul Gonzalez, a receptionist at the Gran Hotel Sula in San Pedro Sula, said guests ran into the streets in their pajamas.
"I ran out of the building and kept going for about a block before I looked back and everything had calmed," he said. "It was really strong. I have never felt anything like that."
The hotel did not suffer major damage.
The quake was felt strongly in El Salvador, Guatemala and northern Nicaragua, but no major damage was reported in those countries. Don Blakeman, a U.S. Geological Survey expert, said people in Mexico and on several Caribbean islands also reported feeling the earthquake.
The quake was relatively shallow, with a depth of only 6 miles (10 kilometers), increasing its potential to cause major damage, Blakeman said.
"It is still possible we may find out there was more damage, but I think the fact that this earthquake was a bit off shore has helped tremendously," he said. "Obviously the farther away from the epicenter you get, there is less damage."
The USGS said a magnitude-4.8 aftershock struck off Honduras about three hours after the quake.
Associated Press writers Juan Carlos Llorca in Guatemala City and Patrick Jones in Belize City contributed to this report.